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The Imaginary Infant

By James Kimmel

"There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone."1

D. Winnicott

We live in a society in which all are perceived, from the moment of birth, as separate individuals. This perception governs the ways in which we care for our newborn. We treat the infant as a separate person, when he is not.

The conception of the infant as a separate person is an abstraction and a product of human imagination. The infant is a structurally separate organism, but he evolved to develop in relation to another person. The other person, in terms of our reproductive biology and genetics, is supposed to be the infant's mother.

Infant and mother did not evolve separately, but together. Both are involved in the same organic process - the creation and development of a new human being. They are a functional unit with the same purpose. In our society, however, they are viewed, from the moment of birth, as two distinct and disconnected entities. Their interaction is based on each satisfying their separate needs. They are not perceived as participants in a process, but as two separate individuals whose needs are sometimes compatible and are sometimes not.

The anthropologist Dorothy Lee has indicated how the value of individualism in our culture influences mothering behavior. She states:

In our own culture, the value of individualism is axiomatically assumed... On this assumption of individualism, a mother has need for individual self-expression. She has to have time for and by herself; and since she values individualism, the mother in our culture usually does have this need for a private life. We also believe that a newborn infant must become individuated, must be taught physical and emotional self-dependence; we assume, in fact, that he has a separate identity which he must be helped to recognize. We believe he has distinct rights, and sociologists urge us to reconcile the needs of the child to those of the adults in the family, on the assumption, of course, that needs and ends are individual, not social.2

The emphasis on individuation and the value placed on individuality in our infant care practices violates the innate sociability of the infant and the socialization process natural to our species. Mothering is the first social event for new human life. It sets the stage for living and developing in relationship to others, rather than in separateness.

The nature and pattern of human mothering is laid out in the womb. Prior to birth, both fetus and mother are subject to a nurturing process that occurs spontaneously after conception. The process follows its own natural biological course, and in its tenacity can only be stopped by miscarriage or abortion. The mother's body automatically accommodates to the requirements of the developing life within her. Although mother and infant are separate organisms with separate physical structures, they function as a unit. They activate and respond to the biology of the other. In this regard, it is of interest that the mother's body would reject and throw off a grafted patch of skin from her unborn baby, yet her body allows the fetus to root into the wall of her womb and to develop there for nine months.3 Mother and embryo become a functional unit because they are participants in the same process, not because they are of the same skin.

The mother's body continues to function for her infant after birth by producing milk, which will continue to be produced as long as the infant nurses. The nursing necessity maintains their functional unity. The biological nurturing process after birth is a continuation of the first stage of nurturing in the womb. Although there are major differences between the two stages in the response required of infant and mother, the pattern of their interaction remains the same. The mother continues to accommodate to and to function for her baby in many of the same areas as she did prior to birth. She provides sustenance, temperature control, protection from danger, and immunity to certain diseases through antibodies in her milk. The mother also offers continuity to the infant in that her heartbeat and movements are sensations with which the infant is familiar. Through physical closeness and by holding and carrying her infant, she provides tactile, kinesthetic, and sensory stimulation and aids the baby in adjusting from a weightless world to the pull of gravity. Through her presence to her infant, the mother eases the transition from life inside her body to life outside her body. Although our culture does not recognize it as such, gestation does not end with birth. For the human mammal, it continues for many years after birth.

The physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development of the infant did not evolve to take place in isolation, but in relation to a nurturing mother. If the mother is removed from the process or is not nurturing in her response to her infant, development in all of these areas become different. The child becomes a different kind of human being than he might have been.

Human inventiveness and technology have found ways to keep infants alive through artificial means and have eliminated the necessity for natural mothering. This does not mean that the infant is a separate individual. He only looks that way - sleeping alone in his warming device in the hospital or in his crib at home. He is still totally dependent for survival and development on another human, even if that person merely prepares his bottle or turns on the caretaking apparatus. In the natural world in which we evolved, the mammalian infant is in contact with his mother at virtually all times. In the modern world the human infant is, more often than not, separated from his mother. Consequently, he must learn to adapt to a nurturing source which is frequently absent.

We view and understand the infant in separateness, which is his most frequent place in our society. Child development experts believe that all infants are endowed at birth with certain needs. Infant care involves satisfying the infant's basic needs. The concept of need and need satisfaction implies that the infant is a separate individual who is complete or incomplete within himself. From this concept comes the assumption that merely providing the infant with that which he lacks will lead to satisfaction and satiation of all of his needs. Thus it is assumed that the need of hunger can be satisfied by milk, whether it comes from the mother's breast, a bottle, or a tube into the stomach; it is assumed that the need for sucking can be satisfied by a breast, the nipple on a bottle, or a pacifier; it is assumed that the need for love can be satisfied by affection or the words "I love you"; it is assumed that the need for attention can be satisfied by a certain minimum of attention or "quality time."

But the human infant is not made up of a set of fragmented basic needs that are unrelated to each other or to his nurturing source. He is a total living organism, dependent for life on that which keeps him alive. He cannot be understood separate from his source of nurturing because he is not separate from this source. By conceiving of the infant as a separate individual, we are able to view all infants as having basic needs unrelated to their care. We can avoid recognizing that we, the nurturing source (mother, father, caretaker, society), impose on infants the needs in which we believe. The needs of infants are reflections of that which a society values or gives priority. We do not believe that infants have a need for the continual presence of their mothers or that their crying should necessitate an immediate response, although these are the beliefs in other cultures. Infants who are continuously carried, are nursed whenever they cry, and sleep with their mothers do not develop the same needs as infants who are left alone for long periods of time, are fed milk from a bottle at four hour intervals, and sleep alone. The latter will develop a need for food, a need for attention, and a need for security that the former will not develop. The former will develop a healthy need for mutually enjoyable contact with other humans.

Dorothy Lee has postulated that we pass on to children, by the way we care for them, our own needs....in maintaining our individual integrity and passing on our value of individualism to the infant, we create needs for food, for security, for emotional response, phrasing these as distinct and separate. We force the infant to go hungry, and we see suckling as merely a matter of nutrition, so that we can then feel free to substitute a bottle for the breast and a mechanical bottle-holder for the mother's arms; thus we ensure privacy for the mother and teach the child self-dependence. We create needs in the infant by withholding affection and then presenting it as a series of approval for an inventory of achievements or attributes. On the assumption that there is no emotional continuum, we withdraw ourselves, thus forcing the child to strive for emotional response and security. And thus, through habituation and teaching, the mother reproduces in the child her own needs.4

Within the assumption of basic needs, we can avoid a total response to the total infant. We can identify that which the infant needs as being that which we provide. We can decide before the infant is born what he needs and what he does not need and assume, because he continues to live and develop, that we are satisfying his needs. We can regulate the infant's life by knowing how often his needs must be satisfied and by deciding which of his needs are most important. Rather than letting the infant and mother establish their own unique and special relationship, it is decided beforehand that the infant needs nourishment at certain intervals, a certain amount of sleep, privacy, and a schedule for his well-being. Having satisfied, in our minds, all the infant's imagined needs, we can then put him aside until his needs need to be satisfied again. We do not have to relate to the infant, but instead to his needs, which allows those who care for him to be separate from him, both physically and emotionally. We can then assign others to take care of his needs (nursemaid, nanny, day care center) and believe we are taking good care of him, blinding ourselves to the fact that normal infant development requires more than care; it requires attachment, caring, and commitment. Care keeps us alive, but the other three establish our human connection. We grow "as human," meaning to identify with the human species, through the connection of another human to us, not by another human's attending to the needs he or she cultivates in us.

In the nurturing process natural to our species both mother and infant grow. As a child grows in humanness from being mothered, a mother grows in her humanness by participating in, and by affirming, the life she has created. She becomes more than herself. In a culture such as our own, the interaction of mother and infant is perceived as an unfair exchange - the mother gives and the infant receives; (a situation to be temporarily tolerated but changed as soon as possible).

The human infant has only one need after he is born. He needs a nurturing mother (or her equivalent) who is there for him. That is what he evolved to have in order to continue his development after he leaves the womb. His mother has everything he needs. Mothering is intrinsic to normal human development. By removing the mother from the nurturing process, or by altering her role in the process, we change the process. Our substitutes for the nurturing mother allow the infant to live, but they are unable to match the totality of her humanness. The consequence of our unnatural ways of caring for the infant is that he becomes the person we imagined him to be, someone who is separate in the world. Our pervasive perception of life in individual separateness prevents us from seeing and experiencing that nurturing our children is not a diminishment of self, but an expansion and enhancement of who we are.


1 Winnicott, D.W. The Child, the Family, and the Outside World. Reading, MA:
Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1987, p. 88.

2 Lee, Dorothy, "Are Basic Needs Ultimate?," in Kluckhohn, C. and Murray, H. A., Editors, Personality in Nature, Society and Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1954, pp. 335-341.

3 Guttmacher, Alan F, Pregnancy and Birth. New York: The Viking Press, 1962.

4 Lee, op. cit.


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